Strategies for freelance paralegals.
The fancy mahogany desk is assembled, the state-of-the-art computer is set up and the phone is installed — your new home office is set up perfectly. Now what? More and more paralegals are making the decision to branch out on their own to start a freelance paralegal business. Although experience and expertise will go a long way, for a business to succeed, it’s pertinent to first create a well-thought-out marketing plan.
“A [business] strategy begins by listing your goals and targets — where do you want to get work and for how many hours,” said Larry Bodine, a Web and marketing consultant with 13 years of experience in legal marketing. For eight years, Bodine served as the marketing director for Sidley & Austin (now Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood), a large, Chicago-based law firm. While there, he supervised everything from public relations, print collateral, advertising, seminars, direct mail and the Web site to marketing training, the internal newsletter and new business proposals. In 2000, he formed an independent marketing consultancy, Larry Bodine Marketing (www.larrybodine.com). He also operates the Law Marketing Portal (www.lawmarketing.com).
“Along with your goals and targets, list the strengths you can build on, weaknesses you can improve on, opportunities you can pursue and competitors you need to be aware of,” Bodine said. Next, you need to explore the different options available for marketing your freelance paralegal services, and decide the best way to use each option to your advantage.
In the past decade, Web sites have become essential, cost-effective marketing tools for many businesses, including those in the legal field. “Web sites are a superb marketing tool, which is why I operate several of them,” Bodine said. “I estimate I get 75 percent of my new business from people who call me and say, ‘I heard about you online.’”
Kristy Sinsara, a paralegal for 12 years, specializing in bankruptcy and divorce, started her freelance business, Oklahoma Paralegals, in September 2004. She said she didn’t realize the importance of Web sites at the time. She created a basic Web site for clients to get in touch with her. “I just threw together a very simple Web site because I thought it was going to be something people would possibly refer to if they needed to,” she said. “It ended up bigger than I thought it would be. People used it a lot more than I realized they would. It ended up being my biggest marketing tool.”
Now, Sinsara said she plans to redesign her Web site to include more functions and information.
Dorothy Secol, CLA, was an in-house paralegal for 24 years before deciding to become a freelance paralegal in 1981. She is the co-owner of Paralegal Services based in Allenhurst, N.J. The company provides services in all areas of the law including Secol’s specialties, residential and commercial real estate, probate, estate administration, personal injury, research and writing and corporate law. Secol’s partners Peggy E. Stalford and Susan A. Niemiec handle bankruptcy, personal injury, banking law and commercial transactions.
Secol also is the author of “Starting and Managing Your Own Business: A freelancing guide for paralegals,” published by Aspen Publishers. She said her Web site, www.paralegalserv.com, is one of her company’s greatest marketing tools. “Since posting the Web site, we no longer print up brochures,” she said. “Everything about us is set forth on the Web site, and we can change the information at will. When a brochure is printed and you have a change, you have to throw out the brochures and order new ones. We direct proposed clients to our Web site, and then answer any questions they might have.”
L. Jane Bourgoin is a freelance paralegal with 30 years of experience, specializing in complex commercial litigation, with an emphasis on professional malpractice and construction law. She started freelancing in 1993 after the construction company she worked for went out of business. Bourgoin mainly provides services to attorneys and corporate legal departments on a contract basis. She said her Web page on the Colorado Freelance Paralegal Network Web site (www.paralegalsfreelance.com), which the company has had running since the late 1990s, has been directly responsible for at least one contract. “I think Web sites are an excellent marketing tool, especially for groups, since all joint advertising and marketing (e.g., in legal publications, directories, etc.) can be directed to the Web site. Even though I know of only one direct ‘hit’ from my Web page that resulted in a contract, I am aware of a lot of activity on the site that might have indirectly resulted in others. Eventually, I might create my own Web site. If I do, I definitely will link it to my page on the CFPN site.”
According to Bodine, a good Web site should be a reference source on your work. “Be sure to list representative clients (with permission), testimonials, references and examples of successful projects you have taken on,” he said. In addition, every single Web page should list your phone number, mailing address and e-mail. “Finally, spend the money to get a professional photo taken and put that online too,” Bodine said.
In the first two months after Sinsara opened her business, she started advertising in The Oklahoma Gazette aggressively. She was unable to afford the more expensive, larger publications such as The Daily Oklahoman, but found a cheaper alternative in the local paper, The Gazette. For about $300 for a full-page ad, the freelance paralegal specializing in probate, divorce and bankruptcy managed to reach her target audience.
“I placed a couple of ads in the paper and in no time, it took off,” she said. “It was absolutely worth the cost of it. I just put a half page ad out, it was a very simple little ad, and from there I probably got 40 clients in my first month.” Sinsara said 90 percent of the clients were derived from ads she placed in The Oklahoma Gazette.
“There is a lawyer I didn’t even know about, I never even heard of before, but apparently he has seen my ad in The Gazette and he refers all kinds of clients to me,” she said. “I spend a lot of money advertising, but I get my advertising money back tenfold.”
In addition to national and local papers, you also should consider advertising in paralegal association or bar newsletters, trade journals, directories, professional Web sites and other community publications. Secol said her company has received calls from ads placed in the Monmouth Memoranda, a local bar newsletter located in Monmouth County.
Pamela Packard is a freelance paralegal specializing in construction and employment law litigation in Idaho. She has more than 30 years of paralegal experience and has been a freelance paralegal for more than two years. Her many clients include the Idaho Department of Agriculture, J.R. Simplot Company (a large potato and agriculture company and the supplier of McDonald’s french fries) and Meuleman & Miller. She said she also has placed business card-sized ads in materials promoting various Lions Club activities.
Bodine cautioned that advertising is good only if it produces results. “You must run five to 10 ads before you are going to see any results,” he said. “If your ad does not make the phone ring, then you have chosen the wrong publication or your customers don’t look for freelance paralegals in ads.”
Printing fliers and brochures is a relatively easy process with the prevalence of inexpensive graphic design software, including QuarkXpress, Adobe Photoshop and a FedEx Kinko’s on every other street corner.
Collateral material can be as simple as a postcard including a list of your services, your credentials and your contact information. You can leave these postcards in attorney drop boxes at the courthouse, post them on law school bulletin boards, pass them out during your local paralegal association meetings or even leave a stack at restaurants and cafés near large law firms.
“Think about the area you are targeting and specifically the people you are targeting, then make fliers or send out mailers like a postcard,” Sinsara said.
Since Sinsara’s clients are mostly women going through a divorce, she decided to target a women’s-only gym in her area. She created a large, full-size poster for her business and displayed it in the gym. “I was targeting women — single women or women going through divorces. Women talk, women have friends and women get divorces. I have gotten quite a bit of business from that,” she said.
Bodine stressed that fliers and other print collateral are great to have, should anyone request them, but they will not bring new business in alone. “They are only good as a ‘leave-behind item’ after you have visited with a client or prospect,” he said.
Association Involvement and Networking
Bodine strongly encourages freelance paralegals to attend bar and trade association meetings where there are plenty of opportunities to meet potential clients. “‘Go fishing where the fish are,’ is the old saying,” he said. “If you are a frequent face at events, it’s easier to get to know the potential customers there.”
Bourgoin agreed. “In the almost 12 years I have been freelancing, I find the most useful marketing tool is networking, and consequently word-of-mouth referrals,” she said. “Most of the marketing I do is passive. I have never done a mass mailing and have never done cold calls.”
She said most of her networking comes from her involvement with various paralegal and attorney associations. Bourgoin is a member of the Rocky Mountain Paralegal Association and actively involved in its freelance section; a member of the Colorado Freelance Paralegal Network; a member of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations; and an associate member of both the Denver and Colorado Bar Associations.
Attempting to get her name out to the public, Packard joined the Boise Chamber of Commerce and attends Chamber functions. “I have applied to be a member of the Boise City Ethics Commission, and I will be working with a state senator on a voluntary basis to assist in drafting legislation this next legislative session,” she said.
In addition, Packard also participates in pro bono activities for the Idaho Association of Paralegals and Idaho’s National Association of Legal Professionals. Packard said most of her new business comes from word of mouth. “Having been an officer in the local paralegal association, I let other members know I am available for work,” she said. “I also have identified other freelance paralegals and send my overflow work to them.”
Elizabeth H. Nellis, CLA, has been a freelance paralegal for nearly 20 years in Tulsa, Okla., specializing in civil litigation. Nellis was the co-founder and past president of the Tulsa Association of Legal Assistants and is a member of NALA. “Without my involvement with TALA and NALA Tulsa, I don’t believe my practice would have been as successful as it has been,” Nellis said. “Almost without exception, the word-of-mouth referrals and networking through both associations have provided me with exceptional opportunities professionally and privately. My very best employment positions and dearest friendships have all originated through contacts made at organizational meetings and events.”
Bodine added that while the best marketing is in-person networking, make sure you are meeting with potential customers, not just other paralegals. “Freelance paralegals should telephone prospective clients and ask to meet them at their offices. If possible, take the prospect out to lunch or dinner,” he said. “The point of the exercise is to start building a relationship; people hire paralegals they like and know. The better the client knows you, the more likely they are to hire you.”
Also, it’s important to maintain a good relationship with current clients and former employers. “Your best referral sources will be your current clients,” Bodine said. “You must ask your clients to refer you, be clear about what kind of work you are looking for, and remember to send them a handwritten card or nice gift when they do refer you business.”
Sinsara was working for Lanpkins & Associates for six years prior to branching out on her own as a freelance paralegal and now the firm is one of her clients. “I still have cases with them and I still work on those cases,” she said.
Increase Visibility: Writing and Public Speaking
Writing articles for your local bar and paralegal associations and legal journals also can be an effective way to reach potential clients. Examples of articles can include issues such as paralegal utilization, discovery, technology and document management.
“[Writing] articles for newsletters, journals and publications is a good way to raise a person’s visibility,” Bodine said. “The important step is to make copies of the article and send them to customers and prospects with a nice cover letter, advising them you are available to work for them.”
Secol said she and her partners have written articles for legal periodicals, newspapers and other publications. Secol credits the company’s monthly newsletter as one of its best marketing tools. “We write a newsletter once a month on an area of substantive law, or on law office management or on an aspect of technology, such as e-mail discovery, software and so forth,” she said.
The newsletter is then faxed to about 1,000 attorneys and title companies, and it’s also available on their Web site. “We feel when the attorneys see the newsletter, it keeps us in their minds and thoughts for future reference,” she said. “We also have had many calls from attorneys for further information on articles we have written.”
Bodine added that freelance paralegals also should “actively write for other Web sites read by customers, and freely grant permission to allow them to be reprinted.”
“Another effective way to get your name out there is to do public speaking. Giving a good public presentation is the most effective way to establish your credibility,” Bodine said. “People naturally think a good speaker also is good at what they practice. I have had people come up to me after a speech and retain me on the spot. If you give speeches, it’s important to give a lot of them, so you become good at public speaking, and give the same speech over and over so you can perfect it.” Both Secol and Packard speak at paralegal seminars for their associations and other law firms.
Nellis started making speeches and presentations during her first term as president of TALA. She has been a co-presenter at TALA seminars and has spoken at the annual meetings of the Oklahoma Paralegal Association.
This July, Nellis is scheduled to be a co-presenter at NALA’s 30th Annual Convention during the Membership Exchange portion. “Public exposure has proven to be a real asset to me, affirmed my creditability and enhanced my reputation and business,” she said. “I have always encouraged other legal assistants to pursue [speaking] opportunities whenever they have been offered to them because the experience will challenge them, aid in their growth and positively reward them in ways they might not even realize at the time.”
Work Within Your Budget
Bodine said professional firms typically spend 2 percent of their gross revenue on marketing. However, he said that the percentage might be too small for a solo business owner.
“Set aside $2,000 for a good Web site you can update yourself. Set aside enough money to take a client or prospective client out to lunch once each week,” he said. “[And] set aside enough to do four direct mailings to prospects per year.”
In reality, many freelance paralegals are one-person operations, and have to work on a shoestring budget. However, marketing doesn’t have to be an expensive or time-consuming endeavor. Many veteran freelance paralegals have successfully marketed their businesses with a little creativity and determination.
Looking for a Fresh Start
Here are some resources to help you market your freelance business:
The U.S. Small Business Administration Web site (www.sba.gov) features tips on the basics of marketing, how to create a marketing plan and even free online marketing courses.
Entrepreneur.com is an established online community where business owners can access marketing information, expert answers and comprehensive services to solve their business challenges.
The Hartford’s Business Owner’s Playbook (http://www.thehartford.com/business-playbook/marketing?LB1) is chock full of expert advice and hundreds of different marketing tips, from Internet marketing to direct mailings.
As a member of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (www.paralegals.org), you have access to the NFPA Freelance Chat and the Freelance Listserv, where members can discuss issues related to freelance paralegal work.
The Colorado Freelance Paralegal Network Web site (www.paralegalsfreelance.com) features a directory of freelance paralegals with a variety of experience and specialties.
Rachel Ng is the former managing editor of Legal Assistant Today. She is currently the assistant copy editor/researcher at Fit Pregnancy magazine. She also freelances for several publications including Law Office Computing, LAT, and EW Woman.